Travelling to Ladakh by Road is perhaps one of the most thrilling road adventures in India or, for that matter, anywhere in the world. Travelling Ladakh by road involves crossing some of the highest motorable mountain passes in the world, driving through vast semi-arid planes and glimpses of the pristine lifestyle of nomads who live in small settlements all along the way.
Ladakh by road offers spectacular sights of barren mountains in the Greater Himalaya and Zanskar range, sweeping valleys and stunning panoramas. Colourful Tibetan prayer flags, prayer bells, monasteries, and the Tibetan Buddist populace that one meets along the way are unique aspects of travelling to the Ladakh region by road. There are two roads that bikers, road trippers and drivers take to reach Leh town. One is Srinagar-Leh Highway, and the more popular one is Leh-Manali Highway.
Manali – Leh Highway
Leh–Manali Highway was designed, built and maintained in its entirety by the Indian Army’s Border Roads Organisation (BRO). The total length of the highway is 490 km. The distance in Himachal between Manali and Sarchu is 230 km, and the distance in the Leh region from Sarchu to Leh is 260 km. Route of 490 km long highway is Manali – Rohtang – Gramphu – Kokhsar -Keylong – Jispa – Zingzingbar – Baralacha La – Gata Loops – Nakee La – Lachulung La – Tanglang La – Upshi – Leh.
This road is usually is open for only about four and a half months in a year in summer between May or June when the Border Roads Organisation clears the snow of the Indian army and mid-October when snowfall again blocks it. Avalanches and heavy snowfalls can sometimes block some road sections and can be extremely dangerous due to frequent patches of ice.
Conditions can change quickly and be harsh. Road closures can be frequent, so check conditions before travelling to this area. Tourists from all over the world and a growing number of Indian tourists use this road for the scenic impressions of the mountains. Truck drivers transport their cargo to Leh and back to other parts of India.
The trip on this road includes a lot of dangers. The road itself, with trucks and buses that sometimes travel only at 15 to 20 km/h due to the road condition. This is not the most comfortable drive in the world. This is not helped because some of the roads have dropped to the side of a good few hundred metres. You can observe crashed, and unlucky vehicles cover with rust down the slope somewhere…
And some of the passes are really spectacular, especially if you have to wait on the side of the road for a truck to pass… Unfortunately, the road is one of the most complicated and challenging roads globally, with snow, never-ending traffic jams, landslides and terrain making the journey exceedingly difficult for anything other than a capable four-wheel-drive vehicle.
Leaving Manali, the first (and relatively calm) part of your journey takes you across Rohtang Pass, where you leave the hordes of weekend tourists behind and journey into the rain shadow area toward the town of Keylong. From here, you cross a series of mountains until you reach the icy gully of Baralacha La, where the adventure really begins.
Crossing Baralacha La, the road climbs and descends along with innumerable craggy ranges, passing several unique geographical wonders, such as the infamous Gata Loops with 21 hairpin bends, the passes of Nakee La and Lachulung La and the pancake-flat More Plains, before making a final push to the rare heights of Tanglang La at 17,500 ft. Then, clearing the high pass, the road gradually descends into the Leh Valley and winds through scenic mountain terrain for another 120 km via Upshi and Karu before entering the town of Leh.
Manali – Rohtang La (52kms): Fun starts within an hour of leaving Manali, as you make your way to the first high altitude pass, Rohtang La 13,050ft, a.k.a. a heap of dead bodies!
Rohtang La – Kokhsar (19kms): Even though the road from Rohtang to Kokhsar is downhill all the way, it is mostly in bad condition. Foreign nationals are supposed to get themselves registered at the check post in Kokhsar; apart from that, this small town has little to offer unless you want to have a quick meal or want to spend the night at the only guest house in town.
Kokhsar – Tandi (38kms): Journey from here is also downhill till Tandi, and the roads are mostly in a state of disarray. Tandi has the last petrol pump before Leh, roughly 380kms from here. So don’t forget to tank up before moving on to Keylong.
Tandi – Keylong (9kms): Keylong is the last place where your mobile phone will work before you reach Leh and also the last place where you can hope to find a mechanic if you are having some problems. With your vehicle, get it checked ASAP! Also, this is a preferred stopover for many who decide to split their journey into three days or more.
Keylong – Darcha (28kms): From Keylong, roads are in somewhat better condition and only get smoother as you approach Jispa and eventually Darcha. Once at Darcha, take a break and tank up on supplies and get yourself registered at the check post here.
Darcha – Sarchu (84kms): Roads are mostly in bad shape, and as the altitude increases, you might start noticing the first effects of Acute Mountain Sickness. It is advisable to take it easy and not overstress yourself, especially at the summit of Baralacha La, 16,500ft. From Baralacha La, it is again a downhill but a rough ride till Bharatpur, after which the road condition starts improving gradually as you approach Sarchu.
Sarchu, at an altitude of 14,000ft, is a collection of tents and a militarily base. Even though it is quite a windy place and high in altitude, it is the preferred night stop for most travellers. You will need to register at the check post in Sarchu before proceeding further.
Sarchu – Pang (80kms): Roads from Sarchu till the start of Gata Loops are in good condition, and the progress is fast. Gata Loops are a collection of 21 loops that take you to an altitude of 15,302 ft, roads in the loops are not so good, and the slow-moving trucks leaving clouds of thick smoke make the ascent feel tougher than it actually is.
Next up is the third pass on the Manali Leh route, Nakee La, 15,547ft. At the same time, a few km down the road is Lachulung La pass, situated at 16,616 ft.
The descent from Lachulung La will take you to Pang, a temporary tent settlement and a check post where travellers need to register themselves. Take a breather here and eat something for the final push to Leh.
Pang – Upshi (125kms): The road from Pang will take you to the famous Moore Plains; situated in a plateau, you will be hard-pressed to believe this relatively flat piece of land is located at an altitude of 15,400ft. The road here is relatively straight and in good condition, inviting you to indulge in speeding. But don’t! The road is quite bumpy, and it will be a good workout for your vehicles suspension and your stomach.
After the fast-paced journey on the Moore plains, you will find yourself on the ascent to the third-highest pass you will encounter in Ladakh, Tanglang La (17,582ft). Unfortunately, the final few km to the pass’s summit are in bad condition, and the steepness coupled with lack of air takes a toll on vehicles performance. But once you reach the top, you will be greeted with spectacular views; in fact, from Tanglang La, you can clearly spot the road to the pass for miles in both directions.
Descent from Tanglang La for the first few km is in bad condition; however,r after that, you will be greeted with the spectacular road. With the altitude decreasing gradually, your spirits will start picking up, and you will feel rejuvenated when you reach Upshi.
Upshi – Leh (55kms): A small break for a cup of tea/coffee at Upshi to unwind is recommended before you continue your journey on the Manali Leh highway to reach Leh, less than an hours drive from Upshi. You can also spend the night in Upshi if you are too tired to continue with the journey.